A new star is born just off Nassau Street. The Calico Grill, behind Cox’s Market in a formerly under utilized space adjacent to a municipal parking lot, opened earlier this month for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The space is set off by a pleasant lattice-work screen and sports a patio that will soon allow for dining al fresco. A small garden lends a touch of green. Entering the dining room, you are greeted with a meticulous trompe-l’oeil mural suggesting the sweep of lush land to tropical sea. As the evening progressed, I was constantly finding small delights in the art work, tucked into the corners.
The Grill is a welcome surprise for anyone venturing away from the main street and the saga behind its creation is a tale to tell. Owners Alan and Marguerite Heap and Carlos Espichan, whom you see every day behind the counter of Cox’s, the Nassau Street sandwich shop and caterers, had long had designs on the space below the store. The challenges inherent in laying out a new use for an old space and building code issues coupled with the requirements of restaurant development caused the dream to be delayed for over two years. Neighbors watched the slow progress with ever-increasing anticipation. And the long wait has been worth it. Having a special place carved out of what could be just another parking lot speaks to the trend of enlivening the streets. Think of it as an oasis in asphalt.
We arrived at 8:30 p.m. and had the place to ourselves but we were hardly the first. One of our company had stopped by earlier when he discovered that this night was indeed opening night. At 6:30 p.m. several tables were already taken and the evening was in full flight. Within moments of our later arrival, three more tables were filled and the lull was over.
While we perused the menu our hosts provided salsa and chips; the salsa verde was rich and subtly spicy — good enough to hang onto to enjoy during the rest of the meal. The focus is on fish and the variety of preparation is large. Appetizers are hearty. Golden calamari ($8.50), crab cakes ($13.50), ceviche (shrimp and scallops marinated in lime juice, for $11.95) vie with gazpacho ($5) and cold summer salsa soup ($6) for attention. Even the five-spice sushi has a Mexican twist with chipotle viniagrette.
We opted for one of the two sampler platters in order to taste three different dishes. The three we tried were crab cake, quesadilla, and fried calamari ($12.95). The third member of our company had never tried calamari and found a new delight in the very lightly fried tidbits. The other combo highlighted ceviche, the poisson cru (mahi mahi marinated in lime, coconut milk, onions and cucumbers), and sushi ($12.95).
For the main meal we each tried something different. The Calico burger is a full pound of meat served on a ciabatta roll with thick steak fries ($12.50). This proved too much for the intrepid youth whose eyes were bigger than his stomach and half came home. The fish du jour was a choice of mahi mahi, salmon, or yellow-fin tuna, all offered either grilled, steamed, sauteed, or broiled. My friend chose the salmon and it was served in a light cilantro cream sauce with Spanish rice and grilled veggies($19.95). I opted for the Mexican lasagna and was greeted with a huge tower of tomatoes, beans, seasoned meat, and what seemed like 1,000 tasty layers ($16.95).
Other entrees include Tiger prawns with horseradish mashed yucca potatoes ($21.50), a grilled vegetable and pepper jack Napoleon ($15.95), and filet mignon teamed with garlic new potatoes and guacamole pepper jack roasted tomatoes ($23.50). Alan Heap, who had been a chef at such Princeton landmarks as Mediterra and the Hyatt prior to taking on Cox’s, expects the menu to expand as the operation matures.
Dessert was too close to call so we had to try three decadent cakes. The chocolate sliver was silk, the carrot cake rich, and the coconut cake reminiscent of the islands. All aspects of the meal were tastefully presented.
The luncheon menu is a mirror of the dinner with hearty salads and sandwiches. Breakfast includes a breakfast burrito ($5.50) and a Spanish continental breakfast ($6.25).
The Calico Grill is BYO and a perfect casual date venue. Once the terrace is open, balmy evenings will beckon. I would not hesitate to bring out-of-town guests for a meal and an evening’s promenade of Princeton, and I would suggest it as a business destination as well. The dining room is small but could accommodate a party of eight easily.
Look sharp for the side walkway that leads to this new find; the woes inherent in dealing with zoning regulations have prevented a sign at street level at this point. In the galaxy of culinary stars that we are privy to in Princeton, the Calico Grill is a bright light and is well worth several visits.
Calico Grill, 180 Nassau Street, Princeton. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 5 to 9 p.m. (until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). Sunday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; brunch until 11 a.m. Closed Monday. 609-924-0500.